The Rakes are trying to get through. They're rushing, bobbing, and weaving. They're pushing ahead, avoiding the crowds. They've got a place to reach, a message to pass on. But there's stuff in their way. Traffic. Strangers punting street hassle (Give us that pizza! What kind of mobile you got?). The network's down. A disruption on the line (underground and telephone). The arteries at the heart of the city are clogged. But they're up for it, no matter how much they're ground down by the daily grind. They've got the drive. The Rakes will get through.
Ten New Messages is the brilliant second album from London's most switched-on, keyed-up young band. It is, literally, ten new messages contained in ten new songs. Musically for The Rakes it was about broadening their palette - the short-sharp-shock of their first album, Capture/Release, has given way to more developed, melodically strong songs. ‘We've not gone avant-garde or experimental or anything,' the band say. ‘We've just got better at our jobs.'
So it's about communication and travel, about reaching out to people, leaping over barriers, dodging buses on your bike, getting home on the night bus, getting hold of your girlfriend when there's no sodding signal on your phone or the battery's done. About how we move through the modern world. It's real life, as opposed to globalised existential angst and pretension.
Ten New Messages, then, is ten concise blasts from the here and now, but powerful enough to retain their relevance tomorrow and the day after.
It is, says frontman Alan Donohoe, a record peopled with different, day-to-day characters, and their responses to the ‘bigger stuff' going on in the world. People like the vacuous male model featured in the rocketing opening song, The World Was A Mess But His Hair Was Perfect. ‘He likes to go on anti-war protest marches,' says Donohoe, ‘but only because he thinks it might be cool.'
And it's about how the modern world blurs cinema fantasy and hard news: the song When Tom Cruise Cries (another genius Rakes title) wonders about the distinction, or lack thereof, between the drama conjured up by actors and the drama contained in CNN reports of events like the 7/7 bombings. ‘But!' cautions Donohoe - and it's a big but - ‘to stop it being like an essay you have to make it into a pleasant song.'
Indeed. As with The Rakes' blistering debut, the new songs are as lean as the band themselves: Donohoe (vocals), Matthew Swinnerton (guitar), Jamie Hornsmith (bass), Lasse Petersen (drums). But there's a lyrical muscularity - and also an ambiguity - about them that adds a punch as ferocious and/or as focused as the playing.
Way back when - in 2005 - The Rakes were lauded for their way with an observant lyric. Unlike their guitar-slinging London peers they weren't just banging on about largin' it Out East or Up West. Singing about the bacchanalian dream is, surely, the refuge of scoundrels. Anyone could do that. But not everyone could sing poetically about the motivation behind headless hedonism, about the brain-boiling stupor of a 22 Grand Job or the soul-swamping monotony of Work Work Work. Could any other young punk rockers have stepped out of peacock-strutting indie culture and imagined Strasbourg, an Eastern European Cold War setting for a love story that then turned back and forwards, looking at a contemporary world going to hell in an Iraqi handcart? Yes, The Rakes were steeped in the speedy buzz of punk. But they also had the intellectual heft - actually, it was maybe more about curiosity - to think outside of happy hour.
‘There's a charm to our first album' says Swinnerton, ‘we were saying something particular. We wanted to keep that lyrical focus. That doesn't mean saying, "this is how things are or should be". It's more an observant interpretation of the world. That makes for interesting listening. So for the new album we just built on simple things like melody and Al's singing. The first album was more punky ‘cause it reflects certain times: dingy rehearsal rooms. Meeting after work. Getting by. Sorting out our first set of songs. Now it's more considered.'
This doesn't mean The Rakes have been considering their navels/effects pedals after 12-18 months of touring. Yes, supporting Bloc Party in Japan and France was a blast. Rocking Coachella in the Californian desert was brilliant, even if you are paler - and considerably less bulky - than every other person there (apart from The Zutons). Closing Benicassim at 4.30 on a magical Spanish morning was one of those experiences that will live with you forever. Touring Europe and the UK with Franz Ferdinand was indeed a lesson in how to play thumping big gigs with a bit of extra welly.
What it means is that The Rakes came back home with an even more perceptive eye. A greater understanding of what was going on around them in London. The pounding heartbeat-throb of On A Mission contains, in keeping with the album's lyrical ambiguity, a mix of different meanings. ‘It's about that selfish determinism to get to where you want to get to, literally. Travelling across London you get wound up almost to the point of hatred.' As the lyric races on, the song's meaning shifts: we hear the gabbled ‘neurotic internal hell' of a jaw-clenched, synapse-smashed individual who swears they "could start a war", who silently sneers at the city's "scum [who] don't know what I'm planning for them".
The flipside is the closing song, Leave The City And Come Home. Swinnerton: ‘It's about someone who came to London as a student, who's both enthralled and horrified by it. It's a bit of a battle to get through, you're worn out but at the same time you're energised by it. Unlike the character in On A Mission who won't stop for anything or anyone, this character is a bit more reflective of where his life's going. A different point of view on the same city.'
Hatred also elbows its way into Suspicious Eyes. Over a compelling agit-pop New Wave jitter, Donohoe sings of a post-7/7 urban landscape where everyone is distrustful of everyone else on the Tube. Young British Asian rapper Raxstar - Donohoe found him on myspace - chips in with trenchant lines, written from the perspective of a kid always viewed these days as a terrorist. Laura Marling, a teenage singer-songwriter now signed to Virgin, is another of the frontman's discoveries. In a beautifully laconic yet soulful voice she sings an alternate verse, representing the voice of the harried young mum.
Down With Moonlight, says Petersen, is about the ‘implicit threat of aggro', the urban paranoia that lurks behind locked doors and wound-up windows. As well as exploring the blurred lines between tragedy and fantasy When Tom Cruise Cries - a masterclass in production that makes inventive use of the sound of a mobile phone signal buzzing through a speaker - is about the stress of trying to reach someone and the fear that ‘something's happening'.
But as with many of the songs on Ten New Messages, the point is not scare tactics or shock for the sake of it. ‘I love the visceral quality of some hip hop lyrics,' says this singer with a band who have worked with grime stars Statik and Lethal Bizzle (Donohoe sings on Statik's next album). ‘It's just something that grabs your ear. Nothing washes over you. But it's a real skill to do that and not just try and be controversial. In Suspicious Eyes a lot of the lyrics were too shocking to put in - concerned with racism and the like. It's important to keep some ambiguity in.'
We Danced Together is a case in point. A huge pop song already leaping out of radio speakers, it's about romance in the face of street curfews, debris and flying bullets. Is this a love story set in a fascist near-future? Or something that happened last year? Or the emotional ravings of a couple ‘aving it a house party? Don't really matter. It's a blinding tune.
Half of Ten New Messages was recorded in Lincolnshire with producer Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Editors, Kasabian), half in London with Brendan Lynch (Primal Scream, Paul Weller). It's testament to the strength of the songwriting and the playing that it sounds like one scorching whole. This is a band who, in the same year, as well as collaborating with Statik, produced a cover of a Serge Gainsbourg standard, demonstrating a broad spectrum of influences that reaches further afield and into territory uncharted by your average trilby sporting/eyes-glazed-over indie band.
Whatever Matthew Swinnterton says about punk, the iTunes designation on their first album had The Rakes' genre down as ‘pop'. They're a band who are economical with their writing: they work on the songs they need, that are good enough to pass muster. Focus on the job at hand. Be right. Be tight. Be concise. The Rakes will get through. Their songs - sharp, meaningful, glorious - will see to that.